Once upon a time there was a wonderful British newspaper that employed a handful of clever and privileged young men (they were mostly men) and sent them off to distant lands to write informed and elegant dispatches for its educated and intelligent readership. Always readable, often exasperating and sometimes wrong, the newspaper led a charmed existence, perpetuating a radical yet endearingly elitist strand in British political life that has now all but disappeared. Taking an admirably open-minded yet responsible attitude towards the vagaries of the cold war and emphasising the need to escape from the burdens of empire, the newspaper seems, in retrospect, to have been too good to be true - and certainly not an enterprise that could have survived in the rougher commercial seas of today. I am told that a title called the Observer still exists, but I fear that it flies under a flag of convenience and would be unrecognisable beyond its home port.
Mark Frankland was a crew member of the once and only Observer, and his unrequited love for the old ship shines through every page of the beautiful memoir he has written from his enforced retirement. Unlike some elderly journalists who dig through their yellowing cuttings and remember limply how it once was for them, Frankland skates lightly over his own achievements. Instead he writes simply and evocatively about times and places that have gone for ever; and he remembers with affection some of the people, like himself, who had experience of living on both sides of the cold war divide.
His three main postings - Moscow, Washington and Saigon - have all changed beyond recognition. While Washington remains an important centre of news, Moscow is no longer politically decipherable and Saigon has been removed from the map. Khrushchev's Russia, where Frankland first arrived in 1962, has been yet more comprehensively erased, both from memory and from the history books. Indeed the entire 40-year period between the death of Stalin in 1953 and the death of the Soviet Union in 1991 has disappeared from the screen. Frankland's book well recovers the atmosphere of that forgotten epoch.
As befits an Observer journalist, not everything is politics. Frankland is not the first writer beguiled by central Europe into having a soft spot for gypsies, and maybe these outsiders provide a useful metaphor for the peculiar position of the foreign correspondent. In this vein, he writes of his grandmother, known as the Gypsy Baroness; of his mother, who drank herself to death; of his own personal experience of being gay; and of an unexpected master at his public school who believed in the moral power of aesthetic beauty and whose recipe for a well-lived day was "to read a poem, listen to a piece of music, and look at a reproduction of a painting".
Frankland writes with a heightened sense of elegy and nostalgia: Russia is not what it used to be, but then nor is England. Remembering the atmosphere of his grandmother's house in Windsor Great Park reminds him of an East Germany "left in the lurch by time". When he returns to look for it, he finds it has disappeared.
In Moscow, inevitably, he lunches with Guy Burgess, whose housekeeper provides wild strawberries and fresh trout, served "on blue and white china made for the tsars, which had belonged to Burgess's mother". He becomes friendly with Victor Louis, the famous Moscow correspondent of the London Evening News, who, having survived the camps, seems to have made some kind of Faustian bargain with the Soviet authorities.
He tells of meeting his KGB "godfather", the sinister Sergei Borisovich. A drunken night with some Soviet soldiers alerts him to the truth that perhaps all the people he has met in Moscow, apparently so casually, may actually have been put in his way by the ubiquitous Borisovich. In Moscow, paranoia is never far away. And it soon extends to London.
Frankland had spent a year learning to be an MI6 agent, though he was not an obvious candidate for spookery. At Cambridge during the Suez crisis of 1956, together with the late Peter Jenkins, he had published "an anti-war pamphlet seditiously advising conscripts to ignore their call-up papers". Finding the mechanics of espionage boring, he soon quit, but the experience marked him, and he could never be mentally free of the relationship. Did the Russians think he was a British spy, he asked himself. Then, as the years passed, he began to wonder whether the British thought he was working for the Russians. Occasionally he would bump into old MI6 colleagues in distant capitals and discover their easy assumption that he had been "turned" by the KGB.
Finally in 1985 he was the victim of one of the typical minuet dances of the cold war. The British had expelled 15 Soviet diplomats and journalists from London on the grounds that they were spies, without thinking (or perhaps caring) whether the Russians might reply in kind. At the dawn of the Gorbachev era, when the British most needed competent ears on the ground in Moscow, 15 of them were indeed thrown out, including Frankland. For the British, it was a spectacular own goal. Ten years later, the Observer made the same mistake and also threw Frankland out. Its readers may regard this lovely book as some small recompense.